MILF on Mamasapano clash: SAF was at fault for not coordinating

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/25 March) – The failure of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force to coordinate with the ceasefire mechanisms of government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led to the Jan. 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that left 44 SAF troopers, 17 MILF guerrillas and at least three civilians dead, the rebel group said in its report on the incident.

The report sustained earlier claims by MILF fighters who engaged the police commandos that it was the latter who fired first.

Close to 400 SAF troopers went to Mamasapano last Jan. 25 to get bombing suspects Zulkipli bin Hir alias Marwan and Abdul Basit Usman. However, less than a hundred commandos carried out the actual operation while the rest stationed themselves along the town’s highway. Marwan was reportedly killed in the raid but Usman escaped.

The MILF report admitted it was the 105th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces that engaged the SAF.

“The BIAF forces, mostly from the 105BC, are residents of Mamasapano, mostly from Barangay Tukanalipao. The action of some of the men of 105BC in going to Sitio Amilil, as was their usual practice whenever there are clashes or impending clashes, was justified as the main purpose was to ensure that the clashes do not happen in the populated areas,” it said in explaining why the MILF fighters massed at the site of the encounter.

“As there was no coordination between the government and the MILF through the AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) and CCCH (Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities) mechanisms, the BIAF cannot be faulted for concluding that the PNP-SAF forces that they chanced upon in Sitio Amilil were enemies, especially after they were fired upon, and after two of their men were shot and killed by the PNP-SAF,” it continued.

It added the dark surrounding prevented the MILF forces from spotting the SAF commandos, in particular the 55 Special Action Company who acted as blocking force, who were already positioned in the cornfield and “had the advantage of having night vision goggles”.

The report said the MILF CCCH “was the first to inform their counterparts in government of the unfortunate encounter in Mamasapano on the said date” and “the first to suggest…to immediately proceed to the encounter site to find ways to effect a ceasefire and disengage the fighting forces”.

The report also denied allegations the BIAF used excessive force and mutilated and desecrated the bodies of the slain SAF troopers.

It said that even though the SAF had the “initial advantage of surprise” [by firing first], the BIAF eventually got the upper hand owing to their familiarity with the terrain, favorable position, superior number and use of the “Barrett”.

It added the SAF commandos stayed in the cornfield while the BIAF members were concealed in the riverbanks and coconut trees. It noted too that at one point it became a close quarter battle with the men “shooting at each other with only 3-4 meters between them.”

The MILF maintained that despite their advantages their men “did not use unnecessary force or employ any method of warfare that violated International Humanitarian Law” but only used their advantages “to the fullest”.

It said the reports about beheading, mutilation and willful killing blamed on their men were unfounded.

“The viral video of an armed man shooting at close range a man apparently from the 55SAC while the latter was lying down on the ground and already wounded, does not clearly show that it was BIAF’s 105BC which is responsible for this,” the report argued.

It said the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and other armed groups were also present in the area and could have entered the encounter site after the BIAF left.

“This is consistent with the narrative of the Crisis Team that when they entered the area at around 1530H, they sensed the presence of armed men therein,” it further noted.

The Crisis Team was formed by the CCCHs and International Monitoring Team to reach the MILF ground commanders and coordinate with the military and PNP for the rescue of the surviving SAF personnel after a ceasefire was effected.

The report admitted that BIAF members indeed took the firearms and personal items of the slain SAF troopers. It asserted such act was “nothing extraordinary” and is “the usual action taken by rebel groups” and is recognized under Rule 49 of Customary International Humanitarian Law.

But the report said some of the slain commandos’ belongings were also taken by the other armed groups and civilians who helped retrieve the bodies. It cited that “when requested by Mayor Ampatuan, some civilians did return some personal effects and equipment belonging to the then slain PNP-SAF, thereby showing that civilian [sic] also had access to them”.

The MILF returned the firearms on Feb. 18 “in the interest of peace”.

The report also reiterated earlier assertions by the MILF that they did not know of Usman’s and Marwan’s presence in Mamasapano. It said the house in Barangay Pembalkan where Marwan was killed belonged to Ustadz Baguindali, who died in 2008.

“When Marwan was killed, he was with the group of Basit Usman, in the vicinity where the BIFF and the breakaway group of Mohammad Ali Tambako are based.

“The house is found in Barangay Pembalkan, Mamasapano, which is more than 3 kilometers away from where the MILF combatants were living in Barangay Tukanalipao. It is not at [sic] area where the MILF has presence or control. note that the site where the encounter between the BIAF and the 55SAC took place is not Pembalkan, but about 2 kilometers away in Sitio Amilil in Tukanalipao,” it said.

The report said that as early as 2005, Marwan and other individuals with “terrorist” tags have been ordered to leave MILF camps and communities.

“This policy of cleaning its ranks of terrorists has not changed and is the very reason why the government has continued negotiating peace with the MILF. It is also the policy that underlies the creation of the AHJAG, where the MILF is to coordinate and cooperate with the AFP and PNP in the interdiction of criminal elements in MILF communities,” it added.

In the same report, the MILF said it would be the one to impose disciplinary action on their men who may have committed violations of the ceasefire agreement in accordance with the Implementing Operational Guidelines on the General Cessation of Hostilities.

The MILF cited Article III, Item 5 of the Guidelines which states: “The GRP and the MILF will take appropriate actions on their respective forces who violate this Implementing Guidelines and Ground Rules.”

“Surely, this case is covered by the Implementing Operational Guidelines, as it pertains to the engagement in hostilities by forces of the MILF and the GPH. It is not an ordinary crime that may have been directed at civilians, but direct armed confrontation between the forces that have signed a ceasefire agreement,” it explained.

The MILF further said that PO2 Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor from the 55SAC, should be investigated for allegedly killing four MILF combatants who were sleeping inside a makeshift mosque in Tukanalipao at past noon on Jan. 26.

Lalan was also accused of killing a civilian identified as Mohammad Ambilang even when the latter had raised his hands to show that he was unarmed.

“The PNP-SAF must also be held accountable for the death of Badrudin Langalen whose dead body was found inside the position of the 55SAC blocking force in Sitio Amilil. The same accountability must be sought for 8-year old Sarah Tot,” the MILF demanded.

The report also recommended disciplinary actions for officials of the 105th and 118th Base Commands of the MILF for their failure to monitor the presence of Marwan and Usman in Pembalkan and report the same to the BIAF command.

“The laxity exhibited by the two Base Commands, perhaps influenced by the overconfidence in the relative peace obtaining in their communities brought about by the ceasefire agreement with the government and the signing of the CAB (Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro), should not go unnoticed. This attitude should not be tolerated,” it said.

It added the same “failure of intelligence” was evident in the entry of at least 300 SAF troopers in Mamasapano without being detected. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)

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